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Write a Standout College Essay

Independent College Consultant Marie Morris stopped by with helpful tips for writing a standout college entrance essay.

As college applications season kicks into high gear, the application item that seems to strike the most fear in students is the essay. Help your students by following these tips!

  • Show, and then tell

Use an anecdote, a real life moment, to grab the reader in the beginning. Showing takes advantage of those concrete details that we can't resist: the specifics of something that happened. Who can resist the juicy stuff? Then the writer can "Tell" or explain, analyze, reflect, etc., on what happened later in the essay.
"I don't hear anything but my own breathing and footsteps" rather than "When you take a step back and observe how modern society functions, it appears quite chaotic and busy."
This essay is about contentment found through rock climbing.
Remember, college admissions folks read thousands of essays, don't bore them!

  • Be authentic

Be yourself. Don't try to impress. Be likeable. Be honest. This is a student's time to shine, to let the colleges learn more about who the applicant is beyond grades, test scores and activities. Don't think about what you think the colleges want to hear. It is more important to be engaging than impressive.
"I am a good loser. It is an art I have perfected. When I was six, I lost a button up my nose"

  • Narrow the lens and own the story

Be specific. Use all of your senses through adjectives and details. Owning the story means no one else could tell it and it didn't happen to anyone else. It doesn't have to be an extraordinary event; it just needs details so nobody else could tell the story the same way.
"I was extremely nervous before the orchestra started playing" Probably every kid in the orchestra felt that. Instead, "I was sitting on the stage with my violin resting on my shoulder, and I was sure I'd never been that nervous. I looked out into the crowd and somehow found my dad".
The best essays are meaningful experiences that also make for good stories.

  • Don't repeat information from the rest of the application

As the editor of the school newspaper, a student would certainly be proud and want to write about it. But it was already listed on the activities section of the application. So rather than writing about what it is like to be the editor, narrow the lens and recall a particular story associated with being the editor, owning the story with rich details. Another approach is to share a story that has not been mentioned anywhere on the application. Remember, the student wants the college and reader to get to know him or her better.

  • Sound like a high school senior

Find the balance between too formal and too casual as the student tells the story in the first person. This is difficult for teenagers as they are not accustomed to this type of writing. Ask these questions: Is this something the student would actually say to someone else? This keeps the writer from being too formal. How would you say it if you were describing it to your favorite teacher? This keeps the writer from being too casual.
"Participating in varsity baseball has been a valuable experience for me because it taught me the importance of committing to my goals". I don't know too many teenagers that would actually say that. But they might say: "Varsity baseball was the first time in my life that I actually wrote a goal down on a piece of paper and promised myself I was going to do it."